Recently I was invited by a small religious community to talk on the non-canonical gospels. As we sipped coffee and munched on donuts around the kitchen table, their opening questions were less about the various gospels than about more fundamental questions such as: how did it happen that some texts were selected and others consigned to oblivion? Who determined what was important? Why weren’t we taught about all this?
Before I answered their questions, I held up one of the donuts on the table. I asked them to consider what was missing in this donut. After a few seconds of bemused silence, one woman said, “Do you mean the hole?”
Precisely. To answer their questions it was important to realize both what was before us and what was missing, what was said and what was unspoken. Simple pious clichés, such as “it’s God’s will” or “the church has always taught this” cannot satisfactorily answer those exacting questions.
So I returned to the donut. Much of who we are was shaped long ago. We have inherited not just the “flotsam and jetsam of history” but also the very ways in which we view that history. Our understanding of what is essential has been fashioned greatly by decisions we usually never imagine. I asked them to consider something that was hovering in the background of many of their questions. Take a look at how the Nicene Creed cast a particular light on Christian traditions. “The Nicene formula is very much like this donut,” I offered. Puzzled stares. They had asked why some things have been overlooked or neglected by the church. What were those decisions that had long-range effects? And what does all this have to do with donuts?
The Nicene formula was not a simple statement of the faith of the church. A council, called by an unbaptized emperor, attempted to resolve the Arian controversy and, in so doing, unify an unwieldy empire. Having recognized Christianity as a legal religion, Constantine was now using its very episcopal structure to help solidify his reign.
But the Nicene formula was more than a loyalty oath. Its very language discloses not simply the Greek penchant for abstraction but, even more, a fascination with power. God is the “all powerful Father, the maker of all.” Jesus is properly entitled as “Lord, Son of God,” anointed with the finest pedigree: “the only-begotten from the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” Indeed all that the Father made was done “through him.” It is only after such an exalted status report that we hear how Jesus entered the human scene: “he came down and became incarnate, became human, suffered and rose up on the third day, went up into the heavens.” For one brief shining moment, there was Camelot. The Holy Spirit is then quickly noted before passing over to the formula’s operational intent: to deliver an anathema to all who would deny this divine connection.
If this formula were the only scrap of information we had about early Christianity we could easily detect that the story sounds very much like the other divine visitation stories of the Greco-Roman world. The divine touches done, but only momentarily, the way the emperor passes through a city on a quick visit.
But we do know more. We know that the Nicene formula attempted to resolve how the ambiguous biblical tradition was to be read. Arius, reading the Gospel of Mark, argued that Jesus became God’s son at his baptism, while his opponents preferred the pre-existent identity of the Logos in the Gospel of John. The resolution came about through adopting the larger conceptual frame that coincided nicely with the way power was wielded in the fourth century. The divinity of Jesus can be exponentially expanded from his public career to eternity by enfolding the Markan narrative within the larger Johannine frame. Indeed, this re-reading of the Gospel of Mark reflected the growing experience of power by the fourth-century church. The church now read its tradition along the establishment’s power lines. And so the Johannine image of Jesus appropriating the lesser Markan Jesus mimicked the imperial assimilation of power.
But there was something dramatically missing in this resolution: the words and deeds of the historical Jesus. The formula of “Father, Son, Spirit, and Anathema,” circulating like an endless ring, provided a well-constructed litmus test. And, as long as we are content with slipping on this ring of power, we can refrain from those nagging aphorisms and social faux pas in the gospels. As long as we enjoy abstracting ourselves from the mess and muck of time and place, we can continue with the usual power plays.
But what if we notice what is not there? What if we detect the donut hole? What happens when we trip over the words and deeds of Jesus? How long can our imaginations remain content to maintain the political status quo when we cross his trip-wire of metaphor? What happens to our theologies when we discover that the historical Jesus was not obsessed with himself? How do we live on this planet when we discern that he risked all by imagining with others how to live in the atmosphere of God?
—Arthur J. Dewey, Xavier University
"Donut Theology," The Fourth R Issue 27-3
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